Historic building tour emphasizes “Bull City’s” tobacco roots

Apr. 26, 2014 @ 10:21 AM

Today, Durham is known as the “City of Medicine” and proudly hosts the Duke University Health System and School of Medicine.  It is also home to the Research Triangle Park, the largest research park in the world, with almost half of the resident companies focusing on life sciences.

Often forgotten, however, are the city’s origins and the fact that its first nickname was the “Bull City.”  While today’s walking tour focuses on buildings associated with Durham’s tobacco manufacturing history, at one time it could have been said that all buildings in Durham were tobacco buildings.

Tobacco was the lifeblood of Durham from the town’s founding in the 1800s until the product’s ebb in the late 1900s.  Before Dr. Bartlett Durham donated the land for a railway station in 1849, the area that would become Durham was simply a loose community of farmers and merchants.  Once the station was constructed however, it became easier for local merchants and manufacturers to transport raw materials into Durham and ship products out.  Some of the first people in the area to capitalize on this opportunity were tobacco manufacturers. 

The first tobacco factory in Durham was constructed by Robert Morris in 1854.  He produced smoking tobacco under the brand name of “Best Flavored Spanish Smoking Tobacco.”  In 1862, John Ruffin Green purchased Morris’ company.  After the Civil War, Green began receiving orders from soldiers who had sampled his product during the surrender in Durham.  With this increased demand, Green decided to change his product’s name to better reflect its Durham roots.  Green’s friend J.Y. Whitted suggested that he use the bull’s head logo found on tins of Coleman’s Durham mustard.  Green agreed and was soon producing tobacco that carried the image of a Durham bull under the name “Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco.”

In 1869, Green took William Thomas Blackwell on as partner.  Shortly after the establishment of this partnership, Green died and Blackwell purchased his share of the company.  Blackwell then took on James R. Day and Julian Shakespeare Carr as partners.  He also changed the company name to W. T. Blackwell and Company and began construction of a new factory.  This building, completed in 1874, was where Blackwell manufactured Bull Durham smoking tobacco and as a result became known as the Old Bull.  By this time, W. T. Blackwell and Company was the largest tobacco manufacturer in the world, and the Durham bull was an iconic and instantly recognizable logo.  In fact, Bull Durham advertisements were frequently placed behind the area where pitchers would warm up during baseball games.  As a result, that area of baseball fields became known as the “bull pen.”

Another Durham tobacco pioneer was Washington Duke.  Duke began manufacturing smoking tobacco in a modest factory on his farm in 1865.  With the help of his sons, Benjamin and James, the company quickly grew.  Washington’s oldest son, Brodie, start of his own tobacco company in town in 1869.  Seeing Brodie’s success in Durham persuaded Washington to make the move himself.  In 1874, the Dukes moved their operations into town and constructed the W. Duke and Sons factory on Main Street.  The company continued to prosper and grow until ultimately, in 1889, W. Duke, Sons and Company merged with four other large tobacco manufacturers to create the American Tobacco Company. 

At its inception, this new company produced 91.7 percent of the cigarettes made in the United States.  In 1899, the American Tobacco Company purchased Union Tobacco Company.  Among this trust’s holdings was W. T. Blackwell’s tobacco company.  With this acquisition, the Old Bull building became the Durham headquarters of the American Tobacco Company.  Over time, a number of other buildings were constructed on the American Tobacco campus around this early landmark.

Despite Reconstruction politics, Durham was able to thrive after the Civil War because of tobacco.  There were many manufacturers in town creating jobs for local residents and creating a steady demand of tobacco from farmers, warehousemen, auctioneers and others related in one way or another to the tobacco trade.  Many other businesses and enterprises sprung up around the town’s tobacco warehouses.  Tobacco market season was a time when the city took on a carnival-like atmosphere, with farmers selling their crops at warehouse and heading into town with money in their pockets.  It was in front of the tobacco warehouses that musicians such as Blind Boy Fuller, Sonny Terry, and John Dee Holeman perfected a sound that came to be known as the Durham Blues.  To this day, Durham is known as a center for blues music.

Durham’s tobacco industry was responsible for creating a number of Gilded Age tycoons.  These tycoons, however, wanted to give back to their community.  Perhaps the best known act of philanthropy in Durham centers on Duke University.  In 1890, a Methodist minister associated with Trinity College in the town of Trinity, North Carolina, was trying to find support to move the college to Durham.  He approached Washington Duke stating that the school had received an offer of $35,000 to move to Raleigh.  Duke replied, “Why, Durham would give that herself and add $50,000 for an endowment if they brought the College to Durham.”

Trinity president John F. Crowell then met with Julian Shakespeare Carr.  Carr agreed to donate 50 acres in Durham to the college.  Once Trinity College was established in Durham, Duke and Carr continued to support the school.  In 1924, after continued urging from school president William Preston Few, James Duke signed an indenture creating the Duke Endowment, funding it with $40 million and designating that 32 percent of the endowment’s annual income be given to what would then be known as Duke University. 

George Watts, an early partner of W. Duke, Sons and Company, in later years funded the construction of Durham’s first hospital at the urging of Dr. Albert G. Carr in 1895.  The original Watts Hospital was small, containing 22 beds.  Watts felt strongly that people should be treated at the hospital regardless of their income level and ensured that 19 of the beds in the hospital would be available to any patient, regardless of their ability to pay.   Demand quickly proved that Durham needed a larger hospital, and in 1908-1909 Watts constructed a second hospital on the corner of Club Boulevard and Broad Street (currently the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics).  In the days of segregation however, only white patients could be treated at Watts hospital. 

Dr. Aaron M. Moore, the city’s first African American physician, wanted a hospital in Durham where African American patients could be treated by African American doctors and nurses.  Because Watts Hospital had excluded African Americans outright, a facility was needed for the rest of Durham’s population.  Dr. Moore approached Benjamin and James Duke regarding their funding such a hospital and they agreed.  The original Lincoln Hospital was located on the corner of Cozart and East Proctor Streets and could house 50 patients.  The Dukes continued to support the facility for a number of years.

Tobacco was the lifeblood of Durham during its first century of existence.  Tobacco has provided the city with jobs, money, schools, churches, and hospitals.  The case could easily be made that without the “Bull City,” there would never have been a “City of Medicine.”

In an 1890 speech, Washington Duke said, in part, “I have no doubt that each of you would like to be a successful man…Be industrious, do not always be looking for an easy, soft place…And when you have made yourself industrious, you must be frugal…Establish it as a rule always to spend less than you make…And when people begin to find out that you are industrious and reliable they will offer you positions of profit.  Ever since I was twelve years old I have been trying to make the world better by having lived in it.  Let this be the rule of your lives.”

As for the rest of Durham’s residents, the farmers, factory workers, warehousemen, auctioneers, tobacco buyers, vendors and musicians outside of the tobacco warehouses, ministers and parishioners of churches founded by tobacco men, a Durhamite visiting Duke Homestead recently said, “Tobacco is just what we were.”

Jennifer Farley is site manager at the Duke Homestead state historic site.